Baby formula is a high-ticket item that’s in high demand, which is why you often see it stocked behind store counters, in locked cases or on shelves with conspicuous video cameras nearby. But all of that hasn’t stopped many enterprising criminals looking for a lower-risk way of loading up on formula. Why go through the hassle of trying to steal formula, when you can confidently fill up your cart, head to the checkout and pay for it all – with fake coupons?

It’s a scam that’s been going on for years, and many people get away with it. But sometimes, people get caught – like two men in Tennessee just did.

28-year-old Jinbin Weng (pictured above, at left) and 33-year-old Ouyang Xushou (at right), both of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were arraigned Friday on charges of theft and fraud. The two men were arrested on Wednesday far from home, in Knox County, Tennessee.

The sheriff’s office there says a local retailer alerted them that the two men had allegedly used counterfeit coupons to purchase baby formula. Investigators questioned the men and searched their vehicle, a rental van. Inside, they found $13,500 worth of counterfeit formula coupons, $17,500 in cash and gift cards, and $4,500 worth of baby formula.

“Evidence suggests the pair made stops in multiple states over the previous days before being captured,” the sheriff’s office said.

Baby formula is a hot ticket on the black market, where it’s often sold in flea markets, in inner-city bodegas or in private transactions. Sellers can offer the formula at deep discounts, since they get it for next to nothing by stealing it or by using fake coupons.


So it’s not unheard of for thieves to travel the country, hitting up stores in town after town, hoping that by the time the stores realize they’ve been handed counterfeit coupons, the thieves are long gone.

But some suspect that individuals who are committing these crimes may not be acting alone. While Tennessee police have not connected Weng and Xushou to any larger scheme at this point, they fit a curious profile – men from the Northeast, of Chinese descent, who travel in pairs, using counterfeit coupons to buy baby formula wherever they go.

Back in 2014, Wenqiang Wu and Zhouxing Dong of Brooklyn, New York were arrested in New Jersey with hundreds of counterfeit baby formula coupons in their car, along with a map showing the location of hundreds of Walmart stores. Just two days later, Win Lin and Long Yang of Fairfield, Ohio were arrested at the very same Walmart, with 1,000 fake formula coupons in their possession.

And earlier this year, Dejun Yan and Xu Zhang of Flushing, New York were arrested in Stuart, Florida, after they tried to go through a Walmart self-checkout with more than 100 cans of Enfamil powdered formula, and more than 100 fake coupons offering $10 off each can. Upon further investigation, police there found the duo had scammed stores in at least three Florida counties. Each man was ultimately convicted of third-degree grand theft, and sentenced about six weeks ago to eight months behind bars.

So far, investigators haven’t been able to connect the dots among all of these cases or any others that may lead them to blow the lid off a fraudulent coupon/formula theft organized crime ring. But there are hundreds of different listings for counterfeit baby formula coupons on the Coupon Information Corporation’s list of known counterfeits, which suggests that there may be even more examples that haven’t been discovered yet – and many more fraudsters who are using them and haven’t been caught yet.

Weng and Xushou were not so lucky. They’re due back in court two days after Christmas for a preliminary hearing. If convicted, they face a maximum penalty of one to six years in prison, and a $3,000 fine.

Looks like their “formula” for success didn’t quite work out this time.

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